Have you ever heard a child ask, “Why do I have to obey?”
As a father of six kids, ages seven to seventeen, I have heard this question often — when not explicitly, then in the tone of their voices and the looks on their faces. As a parent, I don’t want to merely change their external behavior; I want to help them understand the “why” of Christian obedience. And as an Old Testament professor, I have wondered how Jesus’s Bible answers my children’s question. I found an answer in Deuteronomy.
In Deuteronomy 6, Moses expects that parents who love God (Deuteronomy 6:4–5) and who are calling their children to do so as well (Deuteronomy 6:7) will get this kind of question (Deuteronomy 6:20). In Deuteronomy 6:20–25, he clarifies for parents how to reply:
When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.”
Parents, take note. Here Moses teaches us three answers for the why of true obedience.
1. Remind them who the rule-giver is.
Moses does not begin simply by saying, “God commanded it; you should obey it.” Instead, he urges parents to first recall the context of obedience (Deuteronomy 6:21–23). Specifically, we should (1) stress our desperate situation apart from God, (2) highlight God’s saving activity that freed us, and (3) emphasize that God remains faithful to the end.
We see the first two steps in the statement, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out” (Deuteronomy 6:21). Before God ever brought Israel to Sinai and gave them his law, he delivered them from bondage through the exodus. They were slaves; God was the Savior.
Part of following God in obedience is a response to past grace, and heeding God’s rules is about freedom, not slavery. The same rings true in a deeper way in the new covenant. As Jesus frees us from slavery to sin and God’s wrath through the cross, the obedience in which we now walk is the fruit of having “been set free from sin” (Romans 6:22).
Next, “he brought us out from [Egypt], that he might . . . give us the land” (Deuteronomy 6:23). While many Israelites, by their unfaithfulness, forfeited the opportunity to enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 2:14–15), God himself always remains faithful both to bless and to curse. With God comes life and victory; apart from him is death. In Christ, all who believe find real rest now (Matthew 11:28) and have the sure hope of complete rest in eternity (Hebrews 4:1–13). This fact should motivate our daily loyalty.
So, remind them that their faithful Savior, the lover of their souls, tells them to follow him along a path of obedience leading to life.
2. Remind them of the rewards of obedience.
Moses then instructs us as parents to remind our children of the benefits of obedience. Moses motivates obedience by emphasizing the blessings it brings: “The Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day” (Deuteronomy 6:24). Like the circle of blessing that surrounds a child who obeys and honors her parents (Ephesians 6:1–3), a deep connection exists between heeding God’s word and enjoying life. “Man does not live by bread alone, but . . . by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3; cf. Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 32:47).
Jesus’s perfect obedience secures our pardon, purchases God’s promises, and provides the power to enjoy life and obey (Romans 8:1–4, 13; 2 Corinthians 1:20). So, when your children ask you the point of following God, point them to God’s grace and faithfulness and remind them of the blessings enjoyed by all who say “no” to sin and “yes” to God.
3. Celebrate the perfect righteousness Christ alone secures.
Moses called Israel to perfect obedience, which would in turn give evidence of their righteousness: “And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us” (Deuteronomy 6:25).
None of Moses’s audience could live up to this calling, however, for he says later that “to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4). Moses knew that Israel’s inward stubbornness would result in their death (Deuteronomy 31:27–29), and from this perspective, God set up Moses’s law-covenant to bear a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:9). Only the new-covenant work of Christ bears a “ministry of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 3:9).
We, and hopefully our children, are sinners saved by grace. The Mosaic law, by its very nature, condemned (Romans 3:19–20; 2 Corinthians 3:9), as “the very commandment that promised life proved to be death” to all of us (Romans 7:10). Christ alone remained sinless (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5), and his “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Romans 5:18) who surrender to God by faith. For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1), for “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God the Father] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:3–4).
Both Paul and John identify how a Christian’s righteous deeds give evidence that we are indeed right with God in Christ (Romans 2:13; 1 John 3:7). However, our obedience stands merely as the Spirit-enabled “thanks be to God” fruit of our already righteous standing in Christ (Romans 6:17). For “one who has died has been set free from sin. . . . Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:7, 22).
Answering Your Child
Moses’s instruction in Deuteronomy is helpful for Christians, but we must be careful to read it in light of the finished work of Christ. When your child asks, “Why should I obey?” I encourage you to follow the God-given response Moses specifies, but to do so in a way that helps your child recognize the significance of our obedience in relation to Christ:
Remind them of the context of obedience, identifying how Christ saves us from God’s wrath and the power of sin.
Remind them of the benefits of obedience, telling your child of the future grace promised to all who follow the Lord.
Celebrate the perfect righteousness that Christ alone secures, which brings with it all the power of heaven working on our behalf.